By: John Pontifex
Military intervention by the West against the Assad regime in Syria would be disastrous, according to the head of the country’s Melkite Greek Catholic Church, who says nobody can be sure who was responsible for last week’s chemical weapons attack.
Speaking from Lebanon following a pastoral mission to the conflict-ridden Syrian capital, Damascus, Gregorios III, Melkite Greek Catholic Church Patriarch of Antioch, stressed that in spite of the ongoing conflict, reconciliation initiatives were still viable and should be the top priority for all countries concerned with the crisis.
In an interview on Tuesday yesterday with Aid to the Church in Need, Patriarch Gregorios spelled out his doubts about the credibility of some of the evidence emerging from centres of conflict in Syria.
He said: “Who can know who was behind the chemical weapons attack?”
Criticising US policy towards Syria, the Patriarch added: “You should not accuse the government one day and then accuse the opposition the next. That is how you fuel violence and hatred. The Americans have been fuelling the situation for two years.”
While condemning chemical weapons attacks, he highlighted concerns about foreign fighters coming into Syria, a problem he said was compounded by the flow of arms into the country, actions he described as “immoral”.
He said: “Many people are coming from outside Syria to fight in the country. These fighters are fuelling fundamentalism and Islamism.”
Patriarch Gregorios, who in October will be guest-of-honour at Aid to the Church in Need events in London and Glasgow, said the USA, Russia and other world powers should put together a peace plan.
He said: “It is time to finish with these weapons and, instead of calling for violence, international powers need to work for peace.”
Patriarch Gregorios, who ordained three bishops on Sunday (25 August) during his trip to Syria, described the situation in his country as “tragic”.
The Patriarch said that 450,000 Syrian Christians – nearly a third of the total – were either displaced within the country or were refugees abroad. He highlighted problems in Damascus, which until now has acted as a refuge for Christians and others fleeing Homs and other centres north of the capital where violence has been especially severe.
He said that on Monday afternoon (26 August), soon after he left the country, two bombs fell in the Old City of Damascus, both of them very close to the Greek Catholic Melkite Patriarchate, where he was based.
One explosive fell on a Scout centre, about 10 metres from the entrance to his patriarchate, killing two adult male bystanders. No children were hurt.
He said: “We do not know if the attackers are targeting the churches. It could be that we are attacked because we are close to an army base.
“The extremists are wanting to fuel hatred between the Christians and Muslim [groups].”
The Patriarch highlighted the work of a relief centre at the Greek Catholic Patriarchate, set up at the end of 2011, and now providing food, medicine and other help to 2,800 displaced families.
“While the road from Beirut to Damascus is normally safe, once you are inside Damascus it is very difficult. In Damascus, bombs can fall on your head at any time.”
He renewed calls for prayer, stating: “We are happy that our people are responding to this situation with prayer. Throughout this whole time of crisis, our churches have been almost full.
Stressing how many Christian lives had been saved, the Patriarch said: “The people feel that in spite of the problems, God is granting miracles for them.”
“There is a mixture of hope and despair. People do not know what their future may be. They are very concerned about their children and about vulnerable people – including the disabled. People feel fear but in spite of that they are strong in their faith.”
Patriarch Gregorios III has accepted an invitation to be guest-of-honour at Aid to the Church in Need UK’s Westminster Event in central London on Saturday, 19 October 2013. It begins with Mass in Westminster Cathedral at 10.30am and continuing afterwards in the cathedral hall.
In Glasgow he will participate in an Aid to the Church in Need event on Monday, 21 October 2013 at Christ the King Church, Kings Park beginning with Mass at 7pm with talks to follow.